STEM, N.C. – More than 100 fire, rescue, emergency management, North Carolina National Guard soldiers and other first responders gathered at the Camp Butner National Guard Training Center for N.C. Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (NCHART) training here, Feb. 20.
The team paired specially trained first responders with NCNG and North Carolina State Highway Patrol helicopter crews for aerial rescues in difficult and dangerous terrain.
“It is a great day to learn and get experience,” said Mike Sprayberry, North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEM) director.
The training improves cooperation between members of the more than 30 agencies who participated, including many volunteer, city and county fire departments, as well as rescue and emergency medical services units from across the state.
“You become familiar with how others operate and what they can do,” said Jeff Roberts, a training officer with the Durham Fire Department.
Emergency personnel role-playing survivors were hidden along the many acres of woods, hills and valleys of the training site. The training sites consisted of an urban warfare range, which doubled as a downtown setting, the vast expanse of wooded acreage throughout the facility and finally, an area consisting of junked cars and a salvaged helicopter body.
All of the different environments provided their own special search and rescue challenges.
“Butner has so many different training sites, a simulated city, roof rescues and other obstacles all in one area,” said Matthew Mauzy, a member of the South Orange County Rescue Squad.
The training relied on team building between the air crews and NCHART technicians. It took a great deal of skill, a lot of coordination to thread a 3-yard-wide gap in trees with a rescue sling while the aircraft hovered overhead.
To make it more challenging, crews only received partial information of each mission. The rescuers had to adjust their plans to compensate for possible hidden casualties or other surprises.
“You have to make decisions on the fly; in reality you don’t know exactly what you’re going into,” said Jim McConnell, a training officer with New Bern fire and Rescue.
Aviators conducted aerial searches for hidden victims in order to choose the best approach in which to lower crews by cable to the rescue site. Once on the ground, the rescuers searched for survivors and prepared them for the ride of a lifetime.
“I have flown in helicopters a lot but this is the first time I rode on the outside,” said Mekenzie Cox, a firefighter with Greenville Fire and Rescue, playing the part of an aircraft crash survivor.
For Cox’s training run, crews were lowered by hoist near a thick wood line by the site of a helicopter crash. Inside the cockpit, a survivor, a training dummy in pilot’s gear, sat slumped over to simulate a crash casualty.
But the dismounted rescuers realized something was wrong; there was one survivor but two helmets in the wreck. They radioed the air crew that they would search around the craft for another survivor.
The two rescuers detached themselves from the cable, split up and walked in a broad circle around the wreckage, looking for other casualties. Sure enough, behind a three-foot-high hill, they found Cox and guided her to safety.
The rescuers strapped the training dummy into a stretcher and attached it to the end of a long cable from the helicopter’s hoist as the aircraft’s rotors swirled debris in every direction. One rescuer held a lighter rope connected tightly to the end of the stretcher as it rose. The rope kept the stretcher steady in the gale force wind generated by the rotors that were spinning less than 100 feet overhead.
After loading the litter, the second survivor and her rescuer were taken aboard.
The helicopter crew lowered a sling, not much bigger than a large car tire, to the ground. In less than a minute the strap was placed under Cox’s arms and as the last rescuer latched his harness to the sling, both were pulled up to the helicopter.
With everyone accounted for, the rescuers, hoisted up the casualties and transported them to a clearing for evacuation.
Crews repeated this type of complex training all day across the training facility.
“I would not trade this training for anything we have done recently,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeff Gordon, a NCNG instructor pilot.
Air and rescue crews were not the only ones receiving good training. Leaders on the ground at the incident base were also tested. The ground crews tracked all the aircraft, assigned missions and crew and accounted for all injured.
“We are using capabilities we would use in response to a major disaster,” said NCEM West Branch Manager Mike Cook.
The incident base was a collection of fire, rescue and emergency management vehicles from multiple agencies. The Greensboro Fire Department used their mobile classroom for safety and flight briefings. NCEM utilized their communications gear and trucks to transport injured personnel.
“None of us independently could afford this; it’s a state, National Guard and individual (local) department effort,” said Mauzy.
Combining cost saving and capabilities, training and equipment is standard procedure for NCHART.
“We look for resources that can support us without extra expense like Camp Butner, state parks and forests and we bring our own base,” said Cook.